Donnie Darko (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I'm not sure if anything you've read about Donnie Darko has been accurate. It's difficult to tell, because it seems that everything you read will contradict the previous thing you read. This film was hyped before Sundance as being an event approximately equal in significance to the Second Coming, or The End of Days. It was to be an event as rare as hearing Sinatra refer to a woman as a "woman" instead of a "dame" or a "broad." It was to be as commercially viable as Titanic, as brilliant a debut as Citizen Kane, as daring as Magnolia. The buzz quieted significantly when it was shown. People liked it, but realized that it had been over-hyped. Whatever else it was, it was not commercially viable. Although some fairly big stars worked for scale or near-scale to get this produced within budget (one of them was, in fact, the producer, Drew Barrymore), it was all for nought. The film didn't do enough at the box to buy a decent bowl of gumbo in the Latin Quarter.

So what is it all about? Boy, you can't imagine how complicated a question that is.

Donnie Darko is a bright teenager who, in 1988, narrowly escapes being killed when a jet engine falls from the sky and through the roof of his parents' house. You might think that's a good thing, but it isn't, because Donnie was meant to die, and his failure to die means that he will take part in a series of events which will, in 28 days, require his mother to get on a plane which will lose its engine, and ....

OK, are you with me so far? So the engine fell not only through space, but through time as well, apparently going back 28 days. When the police and the FAA investigate the accident, they are non-plussed, because no plane has lost an engine. Hey, c'mon, they should've thought of looking in the future.

Hell, that was the simple stuff. Now it really starts to get complicated. Donnie escaped death because he was called out of his house by a giant bunny rabbit wearing a satan mask. After escaping his fated death, Donnie starts to experience some severe dislocations of time and space. He is able to perform superhuman feats. He is able to see into different parts of the time-space continuum. He is apparently even able to understand what is going on in this movie. The evil bunny continues to suggest actions for Donny, and he continues to obey because the evil bunny tells him that if he doesn't, the world will end in 28 days which, in a sense, is true.

Donnie drives an axe through a statue of the school's mascot. He burns down the house of an irritating self-help guru, accidentally exposing him as a kiddie pornographer. Eventually these actions lead his mother to go on that plane in place of the woman who was supposed to be there. (She had to chaperone some kids in a Star Search competition. The other woman couldn't go because of her devotion to the guru Donny exposed).

This time, when the engine fell off the plane, and back in time, Donnie was there to die, thus assuring he could not do those things which caused her to be on the plane. (If I'm not mistaken, however, Donnie's sister would still be on the plane and die even with the re-start of time. Or maybe I missed something.)

That is kind of the basic outline of the plot, but it involves dozens of other little details which are amusing and fateful. (Nobody likened his plot structure to any of Vonnegut's novels, but I found several elements pleasantly similar to The Sirens of Titan, especially the events surrounding a character named Granny Death)

I think they hoped for an artistic film that would also have box office appeal, ala American Beauty. Instead, they ended up with a personal artistic vision which touched some people very deeply, but just didn't reach out to average moviegoers. That is the very definition of a cult film - one which is not liked by many people, but which is absolutely adored by a small audience. The film did only a half million at the box, despite being rated 8.3 at IMDB!



How good a rating is 8.3? Real good. Here are the other films rated 8.3 at IMDB

  Crouching Tiger (2000)   8.3/10 (28045 votes)
  Vertigo (1958)   8.3/10 (16829 votes)
  Taxi Driver (1976)   8.3/10 (21663 votes)
  The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)   8.3/10 (10150 votes)
  To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)   8.3/10 (14103 votes)
  Saving Private Ryan (1998)   8.3/10 (50442 votes)
  Sunset Blvd. (1950)   8.3/10 (6364 votes)
  Apocalypse Now (1979)   8.3/10 (29644 votes)
  Requiem for a Dream (2000)   8.3/10 (12050 votes)
  L.A. Confidential (1997)   8.3/10 (35786 votes)
  Fight Club (1999)    8.3/10 (42924 votes)
  Paths of Glory (1957)   8.3/10 (5911 votes)
  Third Man, The (1949)   8.3/10 (8729 votes)
  Some Like It Hot (1959)   8.3/10 (10782 votes)
  Matrix, The (1999)   8.3/10 (66093 votes)
  Boot, Das (1981)   8.3/10 (13300 votes)


I wasn't impressed enough to set it in there comfortably with To Kill a Mockingbird and Apocalypse Now, but I think two things make this film stand out from the crowd:

1. While writer/director Richard Kelly has not yet made his writing accessible and lean, I can make no such comment about his direction. He did an excellent job of managing the mood and atmosphere throughout the movie. The movie is absolutely fraught with an ominous feeling. The way he conveys foreboding is so powerful that it overwhelms any doubts you might have about the muddled plot. The film doesn't necessarily engage your mind as he hoped it would, but it remains in control of your moods and emotions for two hours.

2. The film is filled with a strange balance between normal and completely grounded situations and totally satirical characters. I believe this is intentional. I think we are seeing Donnie's POV - he is able to see his family and his favorite teachers as complicated individuals, sometimes liking them, sometimes seeing their nobility, other times finding them irritating. In a sense, the scenes between Donnie and his family are quite normal and realistic, even if the events are played out on a rather grand stage. But the characters Donnie doesn't like are not complex. They are simply buffoons. This is actually reasonable, if you assume Donnie's POV. Teens tend to see the world in unsubtle terms to begin with, and an unbalanced and brilliant teen like Donnie might see them even less subtly. Thus we encounter the self-help guru whose entire system of thought consists of oversimplifying everything, and who is revealed to be a child molester when his house is burned down. Think back when you were in high school. Isn't that how you saw those motivational, self-help guys, and isn't that what you wished would happen to them?

Donnie tends to see the local bullies, his shrink, and a gym teacher in the same way. The gym teacher objects to a nihilistic Graham Greene story in the curriculum. When asked, "Do you even know who Graham Greene is?", she replies, "Well, I think we've all seen Bonanza."

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Commentary by writer/ director Richard Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal

  • Theatrical trailer(s)

  • "Cunning Visions" infomercials

  • "The Philosophy of Time Travel" Book

  • "Mad World" music video

  • Deleted scenes with commentary

  • Art gallery & production stills

  • Widescreen anamorphic format, 2.35:1

My biggest laugh in the movie: a movie theater playing a double bill - The Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ - I guess it was an all-resurrection festival.

The film has weaknesses, more so in the writing than in the direction. A lot of the humor falls flat. There are too many familiar echoes from other films. A lot of the satire is juvenile. Opacity is seen as a virtue. Everything is pictured in starkly polarized black and white terms, as if life were very simple. In that respect, the author ends up doing the very thing that he is criticizing the self-help guru for.

But that's OK. It's a personal type of film made by a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. I like it when these young directors are so daring. Reach for the stars, lads. You see, wisdom is overrated. Oh, it has its place. I want wisdom from my doctor and our country's leaders, but wisdom is not a valid criterion to be used in the measurement of either art or entertainment. There will be plenty of time for all that settled wisdom and those subtle, boring nuances when you get to be 50. When you are 20, that's the time to stand in the courtyard and scream out your feelings in public.

The Critics Vote

  • General super-panel consensus: slightly less than three stars. Ebert 2.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 8.3/10. It is currently #88 of all time.
  • with their dollars - arthouse distribution, a commercial flop. It made about a half million gross, compared to a $4.5 million budget.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. This is absolutely not a mainstream movie. It did nothing at the box office, but it is a fine example of personal filmmaking which has already become a cult favorite. The director of this film is a great talent.

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